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Tuesday, October 1, 1996

Environmentalism at the Crossroads: Green Activism in America

A Dissection of the Modern Environmentalist Movement

Jonathan Adler, director of environmental studies for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is one of the brightest young writers and researchers in the burgeoning field of free-market environmentalism. His essays in the Washington Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications have provided a sober presentation of the facts surrounding environmental issues.

In Environmentalism at the Crossroads, Adler sets out to dissect the modern environmentalist movement and its leading organizations. He traces environmentalism from its origins in the nineteenth century, to its transformation with the first Earth Day in 1971, to the massive lobbying and propaganda machine that it has now become. Adler points out that the modern movement has roots in two different nineteenth-century perspectives on the natural environment—conservationism and preservationism. He argues: While conservation is typically defined as saving resources for human use, preservation seeks to save resources from human use. Until the 1960s and ’70s, it was the conservationist ethic that guided most of the thinking among those concerned about the environment.

Like other movements, environmentalism became radicalized in the 1960s. This transformed its ethic from humanistic conservationism to putting-nature-first preservationism. After the first Earth Day, most environmental groups, including those like the traditionally conservationist Audubon Society, were taken over and radicalized. In the years since, the environmentalist movement, through the strategic use of propaganda and special interest politics, has been able to bring together literally hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate, private, and government funding to affect public policy. The ensuing regulation and legislation have dramatically changed the way all of us consume, do business, and live our lives.

Adler’s book leads the reader to a striking conclusion: in spite of its radical nature, the environmentalist movement has been able to capture most of the power elite in this country and—through the United Nations—the world. This includes both political parties (the most intrusive environmental regulations were passed and signed during the Reagan and Bush administrations); large corporations and foundations (ARCO, Chevron, Apple Computer, IBM, Eastman Kodak, the Ford Foundation, and others jointly contribute millions annually); and the educational establishment (environmental advocacy is part of the official curriculum in most public schools).

A further conclusion that can be reached is that all this power is being amassed and exercised to subvert both sound science and capitalism. The M.O. has been for environmental groups to publish and promote pseudo-science, concluding that the earth is in some imminent danger (global warming, ozone depletion, health risks) caused by some byproduct or input of capitalist production (carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons, alar). Both the media and Congress unquestioningly buy into the hysteria. Such support generates large contributions to the crusading environmental groups and, ultimately, socialistic legislation meant to curb capitalist excesses. This is what makes the movement so dangerous. It has become a significant threat to both scientific integrity and individual liberty.

It is also worth noting that Adler’s book is an important resource. The last third of the book consists of 22 appendices that detail the revenues and expenditures of the world’s leading environmental groups. Organizations with annual revenues of 20 to 40 million dollars are common. The research in these appendices alone makes the book a worthwhile addition to anyone’s policy library.

  • Roy Cordato is Vice President for Research and resident scholar at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, NC. He is also a part time faculty member at NC State University where he teaches a primarily Austrian course called Political Economy of the Market Process and is faculty advisor for the Austrian Economics Forum made up of graduate and undergraduate students. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.